The Best Canoe Trip Portage Packs

7-minute read

Choosing canoe packs will be a one-time purchase for most people if done correctly. Quality packs that are well-cared-for will do their job and last many, many years—even decades.

two women load canoe packs into their canoes

(Photo courtesy of Sharon Brodin)

In this post, we’ll focus on packs for wilderness canoe trips that involve several portages, including lengthy ones—like most you find in the Boundary Waters. These kinds of trips are different than river trips and others that have either very short portages or none at all.

What to Look for in a Canoe Trip Pack

There are a few things to take into consideration when it comes time to shop for canoe packs:

What size(s) do you need? Do you plan to go on most of your trips alone or with one other person? Or do you like the idea of bringing your family or other friends along? Knowing this will help determine the best size packs for you.

Your goal will be to fit all your gear into as few packs as possible to minimize the number of trips across the portages. So they’ll need to be quite large.

A good rule of thumb is to buy the largest pack you can afford.

Toughness. These packs will get tossed around, slung up into trees, scraped on rocks and get weather-beaten. You’ll want the material, straps and stitching to be durable enough to endure rough treatment over many trips and many years, no matter the conditions.

(We have a list of suggested brands below!)

Comfortable and supportive. When loaded down your packs will be heavy. You’ll want comfortable straps and solid support when you’re carrying them up and down hills, through mud, over rocks and among tree roots on those long portages.

Waterproof—maybe. It’s not a deal-breaker. You can also pack everything inside a heavy-duty large garbage bag in the packs. But you can also consider a waterproof pack. The one thing you don’t want is wet gear!

five teen boys with their loaded canoes

(Photo courtesy of Les Voyageurs)

Look and feel. Some canoe trippers love the idea of using packs that are more traditional. Scott Oeth, owner of Bull Moose Patrol, is one of them: “As someone with a love for the legend and lore of the northwoods, the classic canvas portage pack, ash pack basket and wooden wannigan are my favorites to use. These packs, made with natural materials, ooze canoe country romance, especially when paddling one of my wood-canvas canoes!”

How You’ll Use the Packs

If you’re with a group on your canoe trip, generally you’ll use your packs in these ways:

  • Food pack. You want all your food in one pack, with a rope system for hanging if you’re in bear country (for example, the Boundary Waters or Quetico). Some like to use bear barrels for their food instead.
  • Equipment pack. For your tent(s), tarp, rope, saw, stove, cooking gear, etc.
  • Personal packs. For your sleeping bags, sleeping pads, clothing and toiletries. Pack light and you can double up on these—two people per personal pack.

The bigger your packs and the more you can stuff in, the less you’ll need to hike your portages more than once.

Who Makes Canoe Packs?

Duluth Pack

Camille Poirier filed a patent for the original Duluth Pack in 1882. They’ve been around! Packs from the 70s may not look pretty anymore, but they’re still being used on canoe trips, as you can see in the photo above.

Duluth Pack canoe packs come with a lifetime warranty for craftsmanship. They’re made of durable canvas available in several color choices. The leather straps and metal rivets and buckles are designed to last. The Duluth Pack folks will repair normal wear and tear issues for a reasonable fee.

canoes and loaded packs at a portage

(Photo courtesy of Sharon Brodin)

Besides packs, they make bow bags, thwart bags, map cases, padded seats, paddle sacks and tump lines (traditional Voyageur straps that go around your forehead). All their packs are handcrafted at their Duluth, Minnesota headquarters.

Granite Gear

Granite Gear was founded by two canoeing buddies and is headquartered in the small Minnesota town of Two Harbors. Similar in style to Duluth Pack, Granite Gear is made of denier nylon instead of canvas, making them slightly lighter. Some of their packs are waterproof with a roll-top option like you see in dry bags. They offer comfortable and adjustable straps for your shoulders and waist.

They also offer a barrel harness, thwart and bow bags and other handy storage packs.

 woman with a pack helping another canoeist portage the canoe

(Photo courtesy of Les Voyageurs)

One organization that uses Granite Gear canoe packs is Les Voyageurs. This non-profit group takes young people on month-long canoe trips in the far north, so their packs have to be tough.

“Our program has been using Granite Gear canoe packs for a long time, as well as a custom pack-on-frame design that we created many years ago,” said Program Director Zach Fritz.

Portage North

Kondos Outdoors was founded by a husband/wife team in 1980 in Ely, Minnesota. Their high-quality canoe packs gained a great reputation over the past decades. In 2017, Kondos was sold and is now Portage North, still at their Ely headquarters.

Their line of canoe packs continues the Kondos tradition of reliability, durability and value. Their packs are traditionally designed and hand-constructed of tough denier nylon. Food packs, equipment packs, personal packs and barrel slings are all available.

Cooke Custom Sewing

Another canoe pack company started by a husband/wife team, Cooke Custom Sewing has made and sold hand-crafted portage packs since 1980. Though his wife passed a few years ago, Dan Cooke continues making packs at the Lino Lakes, Minnesota headquarters.

CCS offers both traditionally-shaped portage packs and hybrid packs, barrel packs and food packs, all made from tough denier nylon. They also offer bow and thwart bags, canoe covers and seat pads.

 man canoeing with a loaded pack along cliffs

(Photo courtesy of Bull Moose Patrol)

“If I had to pick one ‘do it all’ canoe camping pack, it would be my Cooke Custom Sewing (CCS) 60L Barrel Pack,” said Scott Oeth. “Like all of Dan Cooke's products it is very well made, robust and highly functional. The pack carries heavy loads comfortably, rides in a canoe well and with the "blue barrel" inserted, provides easy, waterproof, worry-free packing.”

Frost River

Frost River is another Duluth, Minnesota-based maker of traditional waxed canvas portage packs of all shapes and sizes. Hand-crafted to last a lifetime, you’ll find packs for your personal gear, equipment, food and kitchen, bow and thwart, pack liners, pack baskets, leather accessories and more.

These are sized to fit as much as possible so you make fewer trips across every portage. “We stand behind all our craftsmanship and hardware. We guarantee the seams on your Frost River bag will stay sewn together, the rivets will hold, the zippers will work, and the buckles will do their job for as long as you (or your grandkids) have your bag,” says the Frost River website.

When your packs suffer normal wear-and-tear over the decades, the team at Frost River will repair them at a reasonable rate.


SealLine is based in Seattle, Washington. Their packs and dry bags aren’t for canoe portaging specifically, but adapt well for that purpose. They’re completely waterproof and come in a variety of sizes and colors.

There are other dry bag-style brands similar to SealLine that would also be good candidates for canoe trip packs.

canoeist in front paddling a loaded canoe  

(Photo courtesy of Caleb Young)

Scott Oeth has guided wilderness canoe trips for years. He said, “On the canoe trips I guide, I often issue participants large roll-top PVC dry bags [like SealLine] with good shoulder straps. These work pretty well, but you need to do a good job of pressing air out and getting at least three tight rolls before buckling to prevent leaking.

“Also, I have concerns about these packs wearing due to abrasion over time, especially if dragged across rocky campsites and portage landings.”

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We hope you found this helpful. Your investment in good packs will pay off with years of use and enjoyment!

Do you have questions about paddles for your canoe trip, too? Contact our friendly customer service team today: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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